Finding Refuge: How grieving employees turn work into a sanctuary

Contrary to traditional narratives (...) grieving employees can actively shape the workplace into a refuge through a phenomenon known as job crafting.

In times of grief, we often seek solace in familiar routines and environments and many who are grieving a loved one turn their work into a refuge for themselves.

This is the main finding of a paper by Dr Lidiia Pletneva, an Assistant Professor of Management in the Department of Management. Dr Pletneva’s paper, Turning work into a refuge: Job crafting as coping with personal, grief-inducing events, has been published in the Academy of Management Journal.

Contrary to traditional narratives, which depict work as often a burden in times of grief, the research reveals that grieving employees can actively shape the workplace into a refuge through a phenomenon known as job crafting.

Take Nancy or Kate, for example, two employees who had experienced a grief-inducing event. Nancy, a project manager grappling with the loss of her mother, and Kate, a manager mourning the loss of her husband, both changed their work behaviour and turned to their work networks for companionship. Through opening up and sharing more personal information with their colleagues as well as deepening their interactions at work, they transformed their workplace into a source of social interaction as a way of coping with their grief.

“I really sought the support of people in my work network, and I was fortunate to be working in an organisation that was very supportive,” Nancy said. “I think it [work] definitely was [helpful] […] having all those relationships that were present for me throughout that really difficult period in my life and so I received support from those people.”

In addition to being a source of support, work was a source of distraction from event-related thoughts and a source of emotional counterpoint to event-generated feelings. Many participants of the research, therefore, shared that they threw themselves into their work, for example, by  broadening their scope of tasks, learning new work-related skills and investigating new ways of implementing tasks.

But the research found that while immersion in work initially offers a reprieve from grief, prolonged avoidance of it can impede healing in the long run. Also, several participants expressed a desire for more time to mourn before returning to work, which emphasises the uniqueness of grief and needs it generates.

How managers can support the transformation of work into a refuge

Positive experiences at work, such as performing engaging work; having positive emotional experiences; and having a safe, supportive workplace environment, can facilitate the process of turning work into a refuge.

Creating these conditions lays the foundation for using work as a refuge when needed and can potentially transform negative experiences into positive, or even beneficial, situations for both employee and employer.

Managers can also support grieving employees by ensuring they have the right amount of agency over their job and by providing job crafting opportunities, such as allowing employees to activate new work relationships and reactivate those that may have languished.

It’s crucial for managers to recognise that grief presents itself differently to every employee. For example, while some employees may feel the length of bereavement leave is not enough, others may not want to go on bereavement leave immediately; they might prefer to break it into pieces having a chance to return to their workplace when the pain is too raw to face it when staying at home.

A manager’s role is also to prevent an overreliance on work as a coping mechanism and to make an employee aware that their well-being is a priority.

Why work is so often a refuge for grieving employees

The employees interviewed gave several reasons why they used work, and not hobbies or other activities in the life domain, to cope with grief.

For many, work was the most easily available tool to cope when they lacked well-established coping mechanisms. Work also had a higher level of importance compared to other types of activities, and therefore a greater potential to respond to event-generated needs.

For others, work had generated positive experiences before the event, involving positive emotional experiences, engaging work, and a supportive environment. While some had well-established coping mechanisms—for example, meditation—the majority did not. Work, then, was the easiest available option because it was already there for them.